The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Eve
Monday, 24 December 2018
O God, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of thy only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that as we joyfully receive him for our Redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him when he shall come to be our Judge; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7
Many of you know that I am an art historian and that my area of research was art, religion, and society in Renaissance Florence and Rome. One of my particular interests has been narrative, that is to say the way that pictures tell stories. It may seem a straightforward thing: you take a subject and depict it in a visual medium. Nothing, however, is this transparent. In rendering a story in paint you are faced with a myriad of choices: how realistic do you make it? do you focus on details or on the larger picture? do you choose to be naturalistic or idealising? do you depart from your text in order to stress a particular theme or idea? The choices that artists make show us what was important to them and to their viewers, what they valued.
Now, legend has always maintained that Saint Luke, the named author of the Gospel from which our Christmas story tonight is taken, was a painter and a physician. In medieval and renaissance Florence, for example, Luke was the patron saint of the Arte dei Medici e Spetziali, the physicians’ and apothecaries’ guild that also included painters—all three professions using the same materials, various minerals and plants, in plying of their trade. In art, Luke was often depicted painting a portrait of Our Lady, Saint Mary and there were many paintings purported to be his picture of her. In reality, we don’t know much about Luke himself, other that what we can gather from a close reading of his texts, the two volume account of the birth of Christianity which has today been divided into the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. He was most likely a highly educated gentile from Macedonia who was drawn first to Judaism and then Christianity, and who likely participated in some missionary activity.(1) Nevertheless, the idea of him as a painter has a strong pull for us and I think that this has something to do with his approach to narrative.
More than any other of the Gospels, you could say that Luke’s is truly painterly in its style of narrative. The author makes things vivid, expands the stories and infuses them with naturalistic details that make them come alive for us. He seems to want us to visualise, to see the events of history unfolding before our eyes.(2) This is not, however, what all painters do and most painters are not gifted at telling stories with words. They are different media, and the amazing power of Luke’s skill at using words to make legendary events from long ago live for us again is obscured when we say he must have been a painter to write this well. It is as a writer and complier of history, making choices of what to include and what to omit, focussing on certain points of detail and character development, where Luke show us his point of vew, shows us what he thinks is crucial for us to understand about the monumental intervention into history of the God of Israel in the person of Jesus Christ. Luke need not be a painter to do this for us, but rather we can say that what some visual artists chose do in their medium—make events fresh and vivid, easily accessible and relatable to our lives, relevant—Luke does for us with words.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the Christmas Story. By the way in which he weaves his narrative, Luke shows us the central importance of the Incarnation and that this event has consequences for us, even down to our own day. Luke’s first readers were, like us, cosmopolitan citizens of a global empire and he wanted to draw them in, get them hooked, sweep them into a powerful story about God to which they could relate, feel some connection, be moved; so moved, in fact, that they would want to be a part of the story themselves.
Mark’s Gospel has no infancy story, it begins at a run with the baptism and doesn’t stop until we get to the cross. Matthew’s story has the baby Jesus, sure, but begins with a table of genealogical interest to legitimise Jesus and place him within the context of the Hebrew Bible. Luke, on the other hand, begins his tale at greater leisure, even providing his rationale for writing the book, “that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed” (1:4). We already know the outline of the story, Luke will fill it in, he tells us, make it come alive, help us see how we are wrapped up in it.
For Luke, Jesus’ birth was something that had a global impact, not just one on the Jewish community into which he was born. The context for Jesus’ birth was “a decree from Caesar Augustus,” himself concerning the whole known world. This impetus from Rome sent shock waves all the way to the far flung corners of the Empire, into Judea, and affected the lives of ordinary people like Joseph, a descendant of that royal line of David so important to Matthew. Caesar’s will touched upon the movement of people and sent Joseph to Bethlehem, and we can see, if we think about it in our age, how a filmmaker could use visual means to convey the scale of events stretching from the centre of human power, to the very periphery of it where, surprisingly, events on an even larger scale, not merely an international one, but a cosmic one, will unfold.
In this place, both teeming with the movement of people acting on the will of an emperor over a thousand miles away, and still bucolic enough for there to be shepherds out in the fields, something extraordinary is about to happen. God, rather than announce the news of this event to the Emperor at Rome, or his representative in Jerusalem, chooses those shepherds, seemingly insignificant in the grand scheme of empire, but clearly important to God. It is here, in a field outside of Bethlehem, not on the Palatine Hill, that “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” It is here, in the dark that the angel brought “good news of great joy” that “to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” This anticipated messiah, this anointed one is announced to agricultural labourers and the form that this messiah takes is that of a baby. Rather than a mighty warrior marching into Rome and announcing the inauguration of the Kingdom of God to the Emperor, God becomes incarnate in the person of a newborn child far away from the centres of secular power and authority.
Focus and movement, setting and scale, characters known to everyone and drawn from history alongside anonymous and obscure everymen: these are some of the devices Luke employs. Using these techniques, Luke tells us that the centre of power we recognise as important, that is a landmark and an anchor for our understanding of how the secular world works, is actually not as important as we have been lead to believe. Luke shows us that people we think of as unimportant are actually essential in God’s plan for establishing the Kingdom of Love. Luke shows us that power and authority look very different from what we are taught it looks like by the secular world. In fact, these juxtapositions, expressed by skilful narrative choices, sends us a clear signal about what Luke thinks is important and that we should value.
Luke shows us how God chose to become incarnate to a young woman of great strength, a young woman who proclaimed that God “hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; hath put down the mighty from their seats and hath exalted the humble and meek; [who] hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away.” Mary knew that God was turning the world upside down, recalibrating our understanding of what matters and what our priorities should be. Those who believe themselves powerful in the world at this moment, who turn from God’s call to radical neighbour love, will be cast low, and those on the margins, those despised by the powerful will be raised up.
Luke, employing all his skills as a storyteller in the choices he makes, wants us to be drawn into this vision, even, especially, those of us who know the inner workings of empire so well, who live in the secular world of business and finance, law and education, who travel, who know somewhere deep down that the world is bigger even than we can imagine. Luke wants us to see that God is unfolding a plan for the inauguration of the Kingdom of God that subverts our understanding of power and that we can be a part of this enterprise, that it is not something that we should fear, but rather something to embrace. Luke engages us with all his skill and sweeps us up into this movement of history that is unfolding even now and shows us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ into time and space that all of us matter, that we all have a place at the manger and that we can allow that experience to transform us into agents of the work set before us.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Christmas Eve, 24 December 2018
(1) François Bovin, Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1–9:50, trans. by Christine M. Thompson and ed. by Helmut Koester, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 8-9.
©2018 Andrew Charles Blume